How much detail is too much?

Details are the currency of storytellers. There’s a reason why authors/storytellers are constantly asked to paint word pictures. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words, since they immortalized a sliver of reality. We can pour over the contents to pick out every single detail. While this is a wonderful thing to recall and strengthen memories, it can be a liability for storytellers. Despite needing details to flesh out a story, can inserting too many cause harm to the tale?

Spark Imagination

In a world of 4K resolutions, this might seem like a ludicrous question. However, I’d consider it to be even more important since our entertainment’s resolution increases with each passing day. To highlight this paradox, I’m going to reach into the depths of my mind to dust off a rough scene. While I cannot remember which series (though I want to say it’s from the Wheel of Time) let alone the specific book that I’m referencing, the rough shape seared itself into my mind.

The important details of this study revolve around a prisoner and a handful of allies. The detained individual has crucial information and, as you would expect, he’s unwilling to share the specifics. Enter one an ally who watched the events unfold. While he stares at the enemy, this individual starts rattling off a list of things he’ll need to torture the information out of the enemy. Before anyone could retrieve the first item from the list, the required information started flowing from the enemy’s lips.

After other allies dragged the captive off, another stepped forward, asking what he planned on doing. The response was something like I don’t know. They’ve never forced me to come up with something, since their own minds come up with the worst potential outcome.

Be Creative

That back-and-forth highlight the power of imagination. Specifically, it explains why too much detail is dangerous to storytelling. The medium of the story is irrelevant. If the storyteller shoves too much detail into a scene, they risk losing the interest of the audience. For example, in a horror movie, if it relies on an excess of violence, there will be those who just aren’t affected. However, if the scene hints at the potential violence through the reaction of key characters, it allows each member of the audience to craft their own version of the scene.

In our endeavors to chase hyper realism in our entertainment, producers and storytellers have forgotten the most important tool in their arsenal. Like the above hero, storytellers need to lean on the active imagination of their audience, rather than trying to spoon feed the audience every conceivable detail.